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Balanchine's Square Dance, Agon, Western Symphony; 11-14 May 2017

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Thursday Evening, 11th May


Square Dance

This might have been a particularly good choice to lead some of the audience into the second-place Agon, because this is the later version in simpler, more minimal costumes like Agon and very clearly and openly laid out on the stage like Agon, too, though contrasting the second ballet in other ways, musical and movement style.  The dancing had somewhat smaller effect than I would have liked, though, a little on the perfunctory side, not that I like overstatement, but very legibly performed with appropriate bounce by these dancers (in near break-leg tempos) in the fast movements.


In contrast, the tempo of the pas de deux with Jillian Barrell was unusally slow; and her partner, Helio Lima, gave a somewhat understated performance of the the famous male variation Balanchine added when he revived and revised this ballet in 1976.


The first performance of a new program can have a few glitches, and tonight the absence of an orchestra with a conductor contributed to a missed cue, when the second pas de trois cast entered to silence, several counts ahead of their music, which is recorded at these performances.  Repeating some steps for a moment until the music caught up, they soon had their dance back together.


Generally the dancing in Agon, staged by Richard Tanner, seemed to me to make a larger effect than it had in Square Dance, staged by Ben Huys, though the contrast between the two wasn't so much as it was a year ago between Symphony in Three Movements, also staged by Huys, and the Apollo, staged by BA's AD, Ib Andersen, which followed it on that program.


But much greater largeness of effect was to come in the central pas de deux, danced by Jillian Barrell and Helio Lima; not only was their dancing "large" in strength of clearly legible shapes made instant by instant, but it gained cumulative effect from these instants appearing in a continuous flow of movement punctuated by the isolated sounds of Stravinsky's music.


And more than that:  When that music becomes aggressive, choppy, and rough-textured for a short section, their dancing also acquired some violent flavor.  This section begins downstage audience left, where the ballerina's partner grabs her by the wrist of the arm she has extended extended back toward him; he hauls her toward him, and they dance in a new manner we haven't seen in Agon before and don't see afterward.   It's part of what I like best about dancing, when it happens:  I like to see what I hear.  Balanchine makes that possible more than most, and good coaching and listening dancers realize the possibility.  As here.  Very, very good.


Not the least of my fun here is that I came to Phoenix hoping to see Natalia Magnicaballi and Kenna Draxton, in particular in Agon and the "Rondo" of Western Symphony, where they are in fact cast over this weekend, because I had enjoyed watching them in the Suzanne Farrell Ballet in Washington, DC.  I hadn't known about Barrell and Lima, and so they were another surprise, a happy one, like the appearances of Tzu-Chia Huang two years ago, in addition to four other ballerinas I had enjoyed watching in TSFB.  With 30 dancers (listed alphabetically in the program, incidentally), BA is not a huge company, but experiences like these lead me to agree with Alastair Macaulay's praise for this troupe as one of the most significant among the Balanchine "diaspora."

Western Symphony

This is the three-movement version we usually see nowadays, the old third-movement "Scherzo" not having been seen anywhere since 1960, apparently, until its revival by Edward Villella's Miami City Ballet in 2011.  Again, this staging by Huys also tended a little toward the perfunctory, though much of the humor was nonetheless clear enough to the audience - like the last moments of the "Adagio," though not, this time, the references to Giselle - no laughs for those; and Kenna Draxton brought some of the right coy wit and sparkle to Le Clercq's role in the final "Rondo."      

Edited by Jack Reed
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It gets better!


Friday Evening 12th May


I cannot account for it, because the principal cast was the same, the recordings were surely the same, and I sat not far from where I sat last night, but most of the issues and reservations I had with last night's show were resolved by this evening. 


I had a better appreciation of Barrell and Lima in Square Dance, both in their pas de deux, which didn't seem too slow this evening, and in his variation, which seemed more continuous and expansive tonight, and the tempos in the fast movements seemed rightly brisk tonight, not driven, as I may have implied about last night. 


That the second pas de trois in Agon went off without a problem - indeed most of the group dances in Agon were better than merely problem-free tonight, if not on quite the scale I have sometimes seen them elsewhere, in the past - should probably go without saying, but I'll say it anyway.  Just a little of Part One was a little wild - and these were unforgiving tempos, but, again, not driving.  And Barrell and Lima made the pas de deux if anything, yet more effective.


Likewise, the ensembles in Western Symphony were vivid except the - what shall I call them? - the representational moves and gestures in it which are not part of the academic vocabulary but give this ballet its color, character - or should I say characters? - and humor.


And the sound was better, clearer, although a little louder (which in some situations makes more distortion) throughout the evening.


The differences were so great I'm tempted to think it was me, somehow - but maybe it's a case of, what a difference a day makes! 



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This looks like I wrote it at the time - May 2017 - but forgot to post it.  Sorry to be so tardy, but in light of the nice comments above, I can hope that it's of some interest even this late: 


Watching further performances, very few of my early dissatisfactions have even scarcely returned - Saturday evening's Square Dance pas de deux, with Barrell and Lima again, did seem just a bit slow, but their plastic continuity and luminous sculpturing redeemed it, and then some; and the effect of all the dancing seems pretty large now.  (But rendering some of the gags in Western Symphony effectively still seems a little beyond some of the boys' reach, unfamiliar movement that it is, especially the "tricks;" these they often whip off, not realizing that they can move quicker than we can see.  Remember the magician's method, "The hand is quicker than the eye"?)


(I don't want to be misunderstood.  We often say "plastic" to refer to something cheap and disposable; typically something made cheaply in industrial quantities by forcing material into molds.  It's this molding I refer to, this molding of poses into shaped phrase after sculptured phrase, that, far from being cheap and industrial, shows art growing and diminishing seemingly of itself, organically - like an organism - with its roots in what we hear:  Balanchine's choreographies especially make this possible; only dancers like these realize his possibilities.)  


As for being disposable, ballet itself is art which disappears before it's finished; and if you're like me, and you've come to feel something's missing from your life if you don't get a good dose of good dance once in a while, you need to return to it.  It's indispensable, but continually slipping away.


So we need to look at dancers dancing.  As the BA casts have rotated through the repertory this weekend, this company has shown its strengths.  (That's beyond impressive, it's reassuring.  One major retirement, Kenna Draxton's, took place this weekend; another, Natalia Magnicaballi's, may come in the near future.  My concern is that, as dancers who realize Balanchine's and others' art retire, and as those who can coach them die off, will those works disappear?  Will we just be left with their steps?)  Without listing specific roles, and running the risk of accidentally leaving out some names I would rather include (and possibly misidentifying one or two), besides Kenna Draxton, Jillian Barrell and Helio Lima, I do want to mention Amber Lewis, Mimi Tompkins, Chelsea Teel, Arianni Martin, and Natalia Magnicaballi's partner in Agon, Randy Pacheco.


Magnicaballi herself has always been special to me.


Last but not least I was not bothered by the lighting in any of the ballets in the program.  It's been a long time since I thought I could count on that.  


There seems to be a new fashion among this generation of lighting designers to re-interpret the dancing, rather than just to make a place for it to happen, a place where we can see it happen; when the stage is full of dancers, they turn up the lights, but when there are, let's say, just two dancers, pas de deux, the lights go down.  


Dance fans know the pas de deux couple are selected for their developed abilities to show us the most nuanced dances in the whole ballet, and so deserve to be seen at least as well as the ensemble; but, no, their space is often shaded now - as though they're doing something embarrassing that needs concealment?  Or do these designers need to show us their "sensitivity," as the dancing becomes "intimate," or something?  I want them to show us the dancers dancing - showing us their dance - intimate or bold or whatever it is.  If we can't see them so well, they don't affect us so much.  Dim light diminishes the dance.  (I think George Balanchine was famous for asking for more light.) 


Ballet Chicago's show earlier in the month (in the Harris Theater there) suffered from this now-common problem, but one of the things that made watching Ballet Arizona an exceptional pleasure was that this show was free of it.  We could see the dancing!  Undistracted by changing lighting, unimpeded by dim light.  Thanks to Michael Korsch, credited with the lighting for all three ballets, and, ultimately, I suppose, as with everything else here, to Ib Andersen, for having Korsch work for him.


Speaking of Andersen, we've commented elsewhere about listing the dancers alphabetically, as they are here.  In this program, for example, Randy Pacheco was Natalia Magnicaballi's very able partner in the Agon pas de deux, and in the "Rondo" of Western Symphony, he's just one of the four boys.  So how would you rank him, in a listing by rank?   I was a math major, but I can't figure that out.  


And I've gathered over the years that alphabetical listing, without regard to rank, may remind the dancers that they have mobility -  they're not hopelessly stuck in the corps and they're not complacently secure among the principals - and they will stay focused on what they're in now, give what they've got, and ascend to more prominent roles (maybe to descend again) according to the AD's judgement.    


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I don't know how to start a new topic, but Ballet Arizona had an open rehearsal Friday of the new works to be presented September 27-30, 2018 at the Orpheum Theatre. They have Patrizia Delgado and Michael Breeden here staging Justin Peck's In Creases and it looked wonderful. Then there's a new ballet by company member Nayon Iovino which had a very unusual, beautiful PDD. Also on the program will be Ib Andersen's Rio. I would encourage anyone who's in the Valley on those dates to try to catch a performance. 

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This really does deserve a new topic, Rock.  Look in the upper right corner of this page for the phrase "Start new topic" in faint gray print - easy to miss - just left of the bold, dark "Reply to this topic" button.  Don't worry about repeating yourself there.  Go ahead, get people's attention!

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Oh. It was easy and it worked. Thanks. Maybe now more people will see it. Their open rehearsal was packed, and there was a donor reception beforehand which was also well attended. What they need is an infusion of cash. Ib is doing a better job than anyone has a right to expect out here and more people should be paying attention. Natalia M was in the audience by the way, all dressed up and looking stunning. 

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